The Ides of August have proven to be deadlier than those of March in 2021. In William Shakespeare’s epic Julius Caesar when the fortune teller prophesises to Julius Caesar “Beware the Ides of March” it was the 15th of March that he had in mind. However, theoretically, if one follows the Roman calendar the Ides do actually fall on the 13th of August as well.
The month from August 15 to September 15 has indeed been portentous. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan culminating in the fall of Kabul to the Taliban on the 15th of August and the creation of the Australia-United Kingdom-United States strategic alliance declared on the 15th of September have profound implications for the years and decades ahead.
Less than a month back Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States proclaimed the establishment of a “Triple Entente” named “AUKUS”. Its objectives inter alia include arming the Australian Navy with nuclear-powered submarines armed as yet with conventional weapons somewhere between 2031 and 2040. This trilateral covenant is undoubtedly and very overtly aimed at taming an increasingly belligerent China both in its neighbourhood and beyond.
The announcement was indubitably a showstopper. However, for all the wrong reasons. First and foremost it left the French livid, literally red and blue in the face. For it effectively scuppered hugest French arms export contract ever signed in its history — €56 billion in all to supply diesel powered submarines to Australia.
French companies would have only a small piece of the pie as the production of the now aborted Franco-Australian submarine project would have been carried out mainly in Australia and that too using indigenous associates such as Lockheed Martin Australia.
Nonetheless the manner in which the entire episode has played itself out, in addition to the economic implications, has grave consequences on France’s estimation of itself and its standing in the international arena. It has effectively undercut France’s Indo-Pacific strategy diligently evolved over numerous years. The plan hinges around compacts with middle powers, more specifically a Paris-New Delhi-Canberra axis, as delineated by President Emmanuel Macron during his Garden Island address in Sydney in 2018.
The moot point remains, why did the US and, by extension, the UK, undercut their Nato partner France in this manner? More essentially, what was Australia’s imperative to play along and renege on a contract and then offer reimbursement for expenses already incurred by France that according to informed estimates could run into several hundred million euros. According to informed estimates Australia has spent 2.4 billion Australian dollars ($1.8 billion) on the project since the French won the contract in 2016.
Finally what will be the implications of this action on both on the Indo-Pacific and Nato?
The first and essential takeaway from this l’affaire is there is no room for mawkishness in geo-strategy. The Biden Administration by withdrawing from Afghanistan essentially sent out a message that it was only following through on the commitments made by the predecessor Trump government. Even though the terms of the “withdrawal agreement” negotiated in Doha were iniquitous but the options on the table were probably worse from its perspective.
However, by walking the talk on its new Indo-Pacific defence arrangement, the Biden Administration is sending out an unambiguous signal that while Donald “Trump” was all sound and fury they mean business by initiating resolute action qua their single biggest national security challenge, i.e. China.
Australia, therefore, was a natural partner in this endeavour for a variety of reasons, namely, it’s a fellow Anglo- Saxon Country, it is English speaking, it is a part of the Five Eyes Arrangement (for the uninitiated please see Pine Gap on Netflix), it has a unique relationship with the United Kingdom with whom the US has a “special relationship”, it is continental in size and, moreover, it is proximate enough to China unlike the US that is a Pacific Ocean away. It, therefore, makes more than eminent sense to co-opt it if the grand strategy is to contend with China in the decades ahead.
There is a template for this behaviour in the past as well, at least from the United States’ standpoint. Seven-and-a-half decades ago when the Second World War ended and for the US the erstwhile USSR was an existential threat it had similarly offered nuclear wherewithal and weaponry to the UK, thereby making that “special relationship” the linchpin around which Nato was constructed. After all, if you have to fight the Soviet Union and that too in Europe you need friends and allies where you can put boots on the ground. Seventy years later, as the US now finds China as its principal adversary, it has actioned a similar European response in the Indo-Pacific region.
Nato is no longer a priority for the US for the ideological and military challenge that the USSR presented vanished three decades ago. While the USSR’s principal successor state Russia may have resurrected itself it is still a far cry from its heydays as the Communist behemoth.
What then are the implications of this Triple Entente on the peace and security of the Asia-Pacific and what would the Chinese do given that an Asian Nato stares it in the face? For over 25 years now, the US and its allies have been attempting to create an Asian Nato to ringfence China. At regional security conferences, multilateral parlays of defence ministers and other deliberations across North, East and even South Asia, this had been the overriding swansong. However, beyond paying lip service, there had been no buy in important Asian geographies all of whom were always hedging their bets vis-a vis China.
Given China’s belligerence especially during Covid-19 in the South China Sea, Hong Kong, Eastern Ladakh and repeated intrusions into Taiwan’s airspace (79 over two days on October 1 and 2, 2021, alone), America seems to have decided to pick up the gauntlet. It has through AUKUS laid down the Anglo Saxon building blocks of the Asian Nato just like it had done in Europe in 1949. A new Cold War in Asia has begun.
For the Chinese it may just be the trigger to do something adventurous. If I were a Chinese strategist in Beijing, I would argue, why wait till 2030-2040, let us just finish the unfinished business of Chinese unification and other outstanding issues before nuclear submarines of the AUKUS troika begin to trawl and the Asian Nato acquires a concrete shape?
For India that lives cheek by jowl with China, AUKUS provides an opportunity to rethink the military dimension of QUAD and perhaps go back to Non-Alignment 2.0 in Asia....